May 31, 2024

NYSUT members welcome newcomers

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
NYSUT members welcome newcomers
Caption: Mohonasen Kindergarten teacher Jen Groth plays with some children while their parents shopped for clothing and other necessities during the district's clothing drive.

In mid-May, a group of asylum seekers was evacuated from their Schenectady hotel after fire code violations were discovered. “The families were moved to six different hotels in this region,” said Liesha Sherman, president of the Mohonasen Teachers Association. “There was some confusion for a few days because the district didn’t know what hotels the students had been moved to.” In one instance, she said, an ENL teacher was texting with a distraught parent because she was being moved during the school day and wasn’t sure where she was being taken or how to reunite with her child after school.

Unfortunately, this represents just the latest in a series of mishaps that have befallen these newcomers since arriving in the U.S., but it also exemplifies the lengths NYSUT members go to serve their students.

Last summer, when the news was flooded with stories about displaced migrants and the quandary of where to settle them, union members were on the frontlines, ready to greet them and help them get settled in towns across the state.

“It was a whirlwind last summer,” said Sherman. After learning there were 71 school-age children in the group of migrants who had been brought to Rotterdam’s Super 8 motel in July, Sherman and other members of the Mohonasen TA went to work. They organized clothing drives for the families, got students registered for school, and administered NYSITELL, the state-mandated language proficiency assessment for initial identification of ELLs. Sherman also served as a liaison between the group of migrants and the district. “I was meeting with our superintendent and providing accurate information which he really didn’t have access to,” said Sherman.

NYSUT members welcome newcomers
Mohonasen librarian Jeana Stapleton and Rotterdam community member Amy Thayer occupy a baby while his parent shopped at the district clothing drive.

Three experienced ENL teachers had built a robust English language learner program at Mohonasen, but the addition of 71 students effectively doubled the size of the program. To keep pace, district administration hired two additional Spanish-speaking TAs and two additional ELL teachers, but it soon became apparent that students needed more than academic support, said Sherman.

“It is important to remember that these students are beginner ELL students, but they also have interrupted learning and some of them have never been to formal school,” said Sherman.

Intervention teams were critical to helping integrate these new students. “We have an amazing social worker who speaks Spanish and has gone above and beyond with her advocacy and support of these students and their families,” said Sherman, explaining that everyone pitched in, and that many teachers were learning strategies to support their ELLs practically overnight. “It has been a year of learning and advocacy for all of us,” she said.

Sweet Home Central School District received an influx of 47 English language learners at the beginning of the school year. The district has a sizable number of transfer students each year due in part to its proximity to the University at Buffalo, but this was different, said Paul Szymendera, president of the Sweet Home Educators Association.

“How do you prepare for 47 transient kids all at once?” he asked. “A student who comes from Pennsylvania — okay fine. A student who comes from a whole different country? That’s a very different situation.”

Sweet Home educators quickly realized that creating a welcoming school was going to depend on more than well-staffed programs. “On paper, we had enough ENL instructors, but now we are realizing that many of these students have never attended school at all,” Szymendera said. Sweet Home educators were simultaneously helping students recover from the trauma of their journeys and teaching the behavior norms of their new schools, he said. “We’re asking them to take on roles they were never trained for,” he said.

In Saugerties, the district welcomed 15 new ELL students at the beginning of the school year and then another 15 over the school year; that’s a 53 percent increase over last year’s numbers. The district has four full-time ENL teachers and two ENL teaching assistants spread across four buildings, said Denyse Ortlieb, president of the Saugerties TA. “Typically, they place students and then there’s an ENL teacher or teaching assistant who pushes into classrooms to help ELL students navigate the subject,” said Ortlieb.

Strapped for resources, the district included money in next year’s budget for hiring an additional part-time ENL teacher and awaits the results of the June 18 re-vote. Ortlieb is concerned about ELLs with learning disabilities that mistakenly get attributed to language barriers. “If we don’t recognize that fast enough, it can lead students to drop out,” she said.

The Saugerties members have tended to the needs of the new families in other ways, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ortlieb and a student founded a ‘school store’ where families can shop for food, free of charge. In the intervening years, demand has skyrocketed and now inventory includes everything from socks and underwear to prom dresses. “It has blown us away how many of the new families are coming in,” she said. “We’re pretty proud of it.”

NYSUT gives educators a hand in preparing for newcomers by offering seminars and courses through the Education & Learning Trust, the union’s professional development arm. ELT offers many highly-rated online and site-based seminars on numerous topics related to ELL students, including language acquisition, scaffolding, assessment, SLIFE students and culturally responsive teaching, and demand for these sessions has skyrocketed this past year. This year, ELT also developed a new training seminar, “From Awareness to Action: Strategies for Effective Instruction of Newcomer ELLs,” specifically to address the deluge of new students.

“NYSUT is committed to supporting the diverse needs of all our members,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jaime Ciffone. Ciffone coordinates the union’s Research and Educational Services and the Education & Learning Trust.

“By equipping union members with the tools and strategies to effectively engage with ELLs in schools, we ensure that they feel heard, valued, supported, and capable of meeting the needs of every student in their classrooms.”